Friday, May 10, 2019

It "Ads" Up: Love in the Time of Podcast Advertising

Today in The Cube:

Anybody who knows me, knows that I love podcasts. They’re my favored mode of entertainment. As I’ve written about previously, it’s a medium that permits versatile consumption – unlike, say, with a book or a YouTube video, with my fully-charged iPad, I can listen to podcasts in the car, while doing chores, while enjoying a morning cup of coffee (or three), while pursuing my hobby of painting wargaming miniatures, and so on and so forth.
I consume hours of podcasts each day - I listen to them more than I watch TV, which is less than 2 hours a day – on a variety of topics and covering a wide swath of interests, from true crime to history to comedy to geek topics. However, I’m also tremendously picky (the less said about the said “Serial”-ization of the podcast medium the better). I’m what you might call a periodic monogamist when it comes to the medium. I tend to have a standard rotation of 10-15 podcasts that I’ll listen to, with some of them staying in rotation for years, having earned a loyal follower in me. Others will be in the rotation for months to a year, before I tire of them for one reason or another. Others I’ll audition for a while and discard. Some I try out and just drop after an episode or two. And some podcasts I just don’t seen to be able to break up with, and I keep going back to them time and again, only to realize afresh why I dropped them in the first place.
By my own reckoning I’ve listened to 150-200 different podcasts over the last 10 years or so. That’s a lot, by any standard.
And something I’ve noticed in that time, something incontrovertible, is the truism that if a podcast has been around for any length of time, it will feature advertising. And sometimes there’s a LOT of it.
The advertising crops up for a variety of reasons; some of the podcasts have ads because they need to offset the costs of their web hosting. Some podcasts are literally the primary or secondary job of the podcasters themselves, and so they need the advertising to actually provide their livelihood. And some podcasts are part of large networks or services that have corporate sponsorships, so the advertising is a native part of the shows themselves – for instance, the podcasts that are made out of NPR radio programming exhibit this feature.
Listening to these ads (over, and over… and over again), you see that patterns start to emerge. First and foremost, there are a bevy of companies that seem to almost exclusively advertise on podcasts that you otherwise have never heard of. These companies seem to be driven by the money brought to them by podcast listenership. Male hygiene products (shaving companies like Harry’s Razors, and erectile dysfunction drug and hair restoration companies), Casper mattresses, and a variety of delivery apps all have advertising presences on podcasts, and not many other high-profile places (though some have started to branch out more into TV).
It became almost a stereotype, for instance, that meal kit delivery services dominated podcast advertising over the past two years or so. Services like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and others had a sort of advertising war going on, as first one, then the other appeared to vie for podcast airwave saturation. It’s been joked about as a trope in podcasts, and as a signifier of Millenial-Hipster identity. It was nearly impossible to listen to a podcast and not be accosted by one of them. Now, over the last year or so, they’ve switched more to TV advertising and left podcasts to others.
What ads appear on podcasts betray the audience that they think they’re bringing in. One comedy podcast I listen to, which is bulwarked by three 40-to-50-something Gen Xers, has begun to feature ads for a company that assists with (get this) life insurance; so the assumption is that, if you’re listening, you’re over the hill. A true crime podcast I enjoy features ads for a service called “Hunt a Killer,” a subscription box where you are put in the role of someone solving a serial murder, and says it’s a fun party activity – the assumption being that the average listener has 1) disposable income 2) leisure time and, 3) a stable network of friendships.
How these podcasts deal with delivering these ads is interesting. Just like on the radio, the podcast hosts actually read the ads themselves, generally adhering to a script provided by the advertiser, though the podcasters usually put their own English on it. Some (most) read it straight, and enthusiastically so. Some take you behind the curtain as they’re reading and reveal how the ads are structured. And some show outright contempt at even having to read the ads.
The ads aren’t simply reserved for big companied - there are definitely independent companies that advertise too, hocking their Kickstarter projects, their own podcasts, locally-produced soaps, hot sauces, and other products. One podcast network even makes it plain: On their podcasts, for a fee of $200, you too can have the hosts read your ad during a part of the show set aside for such utterances.
While I know some people hate hearing their podcasts interrupted by advertising, I don’t particularly mind it; if I can put up with TV ads, then, well, whatever. And I don’t begrudge the podcasters the fact that they’ve actually been able to attract advertising to their shows. 
My worry is about the future of the medium. Podcasting is something that, quite literally, sprung out of nothing about a decade ago and is now becoming highly corporatized. More and more podcasts are the product of big companies hoping to get even bigger by scoring a palpable hit in what was previously a DIY medium; the New York Times alone has at 14+ different podcasts available on iTunes, for instance. Other podcasts join together in so-called “networks” – one well-known network has a yearly funding drive to raise money, with target fundraising goals meted out to each of their member podcasts. And while there are still a lot of independent podcasts that are just produced by a couple of folks with a microphone and a dream, promoting themselves only by word of mouth and the free publicity that social media can bring, more and more, individual podcasts are highly produced operations generated by companies, not individuals, and adhering to a standard set of cookie-cutter tropes and themes.
So, whenever I hear that a podcast I love has started getting some significant advertising money, I start to wonder: where is this going? And will it change?

Friday, April 5, 2019

Is Geek Blogging Dead?

Today in The Cube:

Wow. Two posts from me in a single week? How lucky are you guys? Anyway, enjoy my ramblings…

Every month or so, a discussion thread on Twitter spreads like wildfire through the ranks of the Geek and Nerd Blog Community. The topic? “Is Nerd/Geek Blogging Dead?”
And, just like Rev. Lovejoy trying to give advice to Ned Flanders (“Short answer yes with an if, long answer no… with a but.”) there’s no straight-up affirmative or negative way to decide whether it is or not. Some say yes, some say no, some say it’s just evolved into other media, like dinosaurs evolving into chickens.
Now, let me firstly preface this piece by stating, unequivocally, that I’m not one of the Great Geek Bloggers, so I don't come to this with their experience and perspective. I’m a lesser light at best, probably more accurately described as a hanger-on. The big bloggers (the West Week Ever’s and the Dinosaur Dracula’s and so forth) actually put out consistent content and drive conversations. That ain’t me.
But, I certainly tried. Back in 2010, like a kid from the sticks who thumbed a ride to New York City with stars in his eyes, I entered into the blogging scene - after reading all the “right” articles and so forth - with a dream of hitting it big and getting richer than astronauts. I started this blog, bought my domain name, produced my content, signed up for ad thingies (whatever they’re called), started a Twitter profile to promote it, and just waited for the hits, clicks, comments and money to roll in like a tide.
Not surprising, right? By the time I’d entered the market, there were a ton of other nerd/geek blogs out there, large and small, doing what I'd envisioned, but doing it better. And, honestly, trying to keep up with the latest nerd news, carve out a new niche for myself in cyberspace, and keep the blog going - in addition to having an actual job and a life - ended up being way too much. And in the end the blog went to the wayside, to be occasionally picked up again with the best intentions before being put down again. I think that’s the case for a lot of us. Honestly, there have been plenty of times I’ve planned to just shut the blog down, only to hesitate. And I’ve been glad that I’ve waited and that it’s still there, so I can foist stuff like this on the illiterate general public (I kid because I love, folks).
I’ve been active otherwise. I wrote movie and comics reviews for what I only recently discovered is a now-defunct Canadian website, I’ve been writing on wargaming hobby subjects for over a year now at Gamemats.com, and I’ve had my writing and opinions featured on other sites and even on podcasts (which is always a treat).
But is the Nerd/Geek Blog writ-large now a thing of the past? There are a lot of them still out there, still doggedly putting out great content. But are they the force they once were?
No, likely not. Media, and how we consume it, has changed at warp speed in the last 10 years, never mind the last 20. Blogs were likely already becoming obsolete when YouTube came into the picture and folks decided to put their content on video instead of the written word. I’ve also heard that the demise of certain aggregators, etc., that made accessing blogs easier helped ease them out of the collective consciousness.
Another thing is the podcast revolution. Y’know, it used to be, everybody had an idea for a novel. Then they had an idea for a play. Then they had an idea for a screenplay. Then they had an idea for a novel, again. Then they had an idea for a blog, and now they have an idea for a podcast. Podcasting, which its low cost of entry, and viability for consumption in a variety of venues (let’s face it, you have to sit down and read a blog, but you can listen to a podcast at work, in the car, while doing chores, as you drift off to sleep, etc.), has supplanted the blog in a lot of ways, and quite a few geek bloggers have jumped into the podcasting arena.
Some folks assert that people just don’t read anymore, and that that's killed the blog. Maybe that’s true, but so much of the internet and its content remains texted-based that I just kind of rebel against a simple conclusion like that. As an example: People on Twitter, now that they have 280 characters to work with, are writing MORE, not less, and threads discussing topics have become more numerous. People are reading and writing, still, and in huge numbers, just in different ways.
Another issue, and maybe it's just me, but it’s hard to find blogs to read. Most are one-man ventures that aren’t focused on making money (or expending it) so… bloggers don’t advertise. They only way I’ve found blogs to read is, essentially, via word-of-mouth. Now, I’ve heard of the so-called halcyon days of nerd blogging when the bloggers would band together and promote one another, but apparently those days, like the Second Age of Middle-Earth, have passed into the Grey Havens.
I think it seems like I may be avoiding the question, so let me answer it bluntly: Is nerd blogging dead?
Yes, if taken in a global sense. The days when a nerd blog was going to set the world on fire and become a massive cultural influencer that would earn money to send your kids to college have passed (if those days ever existed), and likely passed 10 years ago. But I think that goes for every kind of blogging, not just nerd blogging. Blogs were a step in the evolution of what those annoying culture mavens used to call "Web 2.0," and now there are other media taking their place. We’re moving on from silent movies to talkies.
And that’s ok. It happens. Nobody uses horse-drawn buggies anymore (I mean, except the Amish, but they’re not likely to read this).
However, an unspoken assumption in all of this is that a large audience for a geek blog is possible, even desired. A geek blog, by its very nature, is niche, and will appeal, likely, to a small field of like-minded people. These are the people that a blogger would like to have read and respond to their posts. A huge audience brings with it some positives, but also minuses.
Now, in a smaller sense, in the personal, community sense, nerd blogs are not dead. Great content is being pumped out every day, every week. A blog only dies when its creator decides that, ultimately, they don’t want to do it anymore. Blogging, in the first place, isn’t supposed to be about getting and building an audience or making money - just like any form or art or creative expression out there. Blogging is about writing about what you like, what’s important to you, and then releasing it out into the aether. If it attracts a following (and pecuniary remuneration), so much the better. It’s being intentional, it’s being authentic in your goals, that matters in blogging. That’s at the heart of the thing.
If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right, and the blog will keep on going.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Why "Television's Golden Age" is Leaving Me Cold

Today in The Cube:

Even as late as three years ago, the death of scripted TV was being bandied about in the press.
Reality TV shows, which saw their rise begin with “Survivor” and its ilk, were cheaper to produce and didn’t need scripts, stables of actors, or a large film crew, and still drew in boffo ratings. Reality TV was, like an invasive vine brought into your yard because you thought it looked good at the garden center, taking over.
You could see it all over every channel, whether network or cable. Even places like The Learning Channel (TLC) and The History Channel, which had beforehand produced ostensibly educational programming, fell into step with others and reality ruled where edutainment had once held sway.
But somewhere along the way, something magical happened, and scripted TV was saved, and made a comeback in a big way. Indeed, in 2018, nearly 500 new scripted shows hit the airwaves and the streaming services - a record-setting number.
Now there’s not just a good number of scripted TV shows out there, of all kinds, but abundance to feed a cyclops.
Now, instead of a graveyard of scripted TV, we’re being told that we’re living in Television’s Golden Age - and that we’re lucky to do so.
Personally, I’d kind of like to get off this particular ride.
Television’s Golden Age has left me cold.
Let me tell you why.

The roots of the scripted TV “revolution” of the mid-2010s, I think, has its roots in the 1990s with the success of NBC’s “Must-See TV” lineup on Thursdays, famously bulwarked for most of the decade by Seinfeld, surely the first modern progenitor of “appointment viewing.”
After that, we had the “premium must-sees,” like The Sopranos and Sex in the City, as well as Six Feet Under and The Wire and others - all programs that generated a lot of buzz and press but were on premium channels and, therefore, not readily available to those of us with basic cable.
Must-see dramas became more democratized when basic-cable channel AMC produced both Mad Men and Breaking Bad, blockbuster hits that began to set a new standard for storytelling and content in primetime programming.
And then Netflix began producing their own shows, with their two most high-profile early offerings being Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. Netflix introduced a novelty that has since been embraced by most other streaming services: Releasing all episodes of a new show's season at once, instead of weekly, as most other conventional TV channels did.
This created the phenomenon of “bingable streaming TV," allowing you to watch episode after episode and, later, season after season, uninterrupted.
The popular and critical success of Netflix’s offerings emboldened other services to produce their own scripted TV shows (and other programming as well). Competition heated up among streamers to attract new subscribers, and between streamers and traditional TV for eyes and advertising dollars, creating the push to outdo each other with the quality and addictiveness of their scripted shows.
Scripted TV was saved. Television’s Golden Age was inaugurated.

Except I don’t find it particularly golden. 
I’ve noticed some problems with this new age. First, I find it nearly impossible to continue watching many of the new shows being produced, simply because their quality suffers after the first season.
I’m continually left with the feeling that Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other streaming services (and, increasingly, the legacy networks and cable/premium channels) are willing to throw money at show runners with a good idea for a first season… without much of a plan for what they’re going to do afterwards.
I can say without hyperbole that the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards was the best and most riveting season of television I’ve ever seen, bar none. 
Season Two was... very good. Season Three was bad. And I quit the show after watching a single episode of Season Four, because things had gotten so far away from the show's original promise.
Other programs have suffered from the same disease of uneven quality, including Orange is the New Black, Making a Murderer, Hemlock Grove, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and so forth.
It makes me… unwilling and uninterested to invest my time in a new show simply because the likelihood that it will disappoint is, sadly, pretty high. I'd rather re-watch Frasier or Friends for the 100th time instead.

Second, each of the new shows’ episodes is explicitly made - cleverly, with Byzantine design - to be “bingable,” complete with intricate plots that rival the contrivances of many operas, large casts of characters and frequent cliffhanger endings.
It’s as though the television industry has enslaved a billion monkeys to peck at a billion typewriters, and every single one of them has read the collected works of Edgar Ride Burroughs. 
For me, at least, this leads to a thoroughly exhausting and unsatisfying viewing experience. Working through even good shows in a 10-episode “season” again and again, only to continually reach another season-ender with a cliffhanger designed to drag you into the NEXT season is the very worst kind of tease, without a payoff of any kind. It’s the reason my wife and I have simply stopped watching some shows in the midst of a season, even ones we like. It’s become too much of an investment of mental bandwidth.

The other problem I’ve noticed with so many of these “Golden Age” series is… well, they’re unremittingly dark.
For Example: Hulu, which struck on a “hit-of-the-moment” success with “A Handmaid’s Tale” (a cultural criticism podcast I listen to chided the show for being “too on the nose” - and they’re right), has, in that program, a show that some critics have dubbed simply “bleak.” My wife, a fan of the show, was disappointed in the most recent (second) season, feeling that it just didn’t go anywhere, except into stark realms of butchery. 
I read the book upon which it is based, and I know what the show is getting at culturally, but it’s a great example of the kind of abattoir excesses that the Golden Age of Television seems to extoll as artistic brilliance: grim, color-desaturated depictions of violence as a stand-in for realism; whispers and shudders as a stand-in for dialogue; extreme close-ups of characters staring with moist eyes into the middle distance as a stand-in for acting.
I’m just not interested in being depressed by what I watch. I want to enjoy it, not be distressed by it.
I was interested, for instance, in watching the “Haunting of Hill House” show on Netflix when it premiered around Halloween last year. I like scary movies and ghost stories particularly. But when I read that it was a show based around the trauma of grief, I decided it wasn’t for me.
Isn’t entertainment supposed to be… y’know, an escape? So, if we’re binge-watching 10-episode seasons of utter demoralizing shock as entertainment, how do we escape what we’d meant to be our escape?
I fully realize that there are a lot of shows that aren’t just an unrelenting palette of gray skies and human suffering, but they’re not the ones that get the media focus, or the advertising.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

"Dark and Terrible": What Killed Two of the Best Games You've Never Heard Of?

Part I: Two Games, Alike In Dignity

In back-to-back years, 2005 and 2006, gaming juggernaut Wizards of the Coast (the company behind probably the biggest tabletop game on earth, Magic: The Gathering) unleashed two new and innovative games on the gaming public. Both followed the Magic model. Both had unique features that set them apart from anything else on the market. Both seemed to be well-received by the gaming audience.
And both would be gone from the tabletop landscape by the fall of 2007.
The games, Hecatomb and Dreamblade, ended up being footnotes in the history of tabletop gaming, and in the history of Wizards of the Coast - just two game lines, remarkable though they were, that were here and gone too soon. That’s not too unusual in the toy and game business.
But they could have been a lot more. And they just... weren't.
And, despite a lot of fans, a lot of speculation and a lot of disparate information floating out in the aether of the information superhighway, there’s never been anything definitive discussing these games and what made them fall from grace.
If you follow me on Twitter, or know me in real life, you know I have an attachment to games like these, games that - for all their possibility, their ingenuity, and the care and craft behind them - just didn’t make it, for whatever reason. I’m drawn to the obscure, to the stories behind them, to the hunt for clues and details. Especially when the games are as special, as evocative (and, let's put it out there, as fun!) as Hecatomb and Dreamblade were.
In this series of posts, I’d like to take a look at these games, and the forces around them, and try to come up with some concrete reasons for what ended up taking them down.
I should start off by clarifying that I’m not an industry insider but any means; I don’t have access to sales charts, balance sheets, memos, emails, or “smoking gun” documents that point to clear, definitive answers. What I’ve got is a lot of research into the fan communities that supported these games, and the information, the theories, and the emotions that they had. I hope by the end of this I won’t so much have THE answers as to why Hecatomb and Dreamblade aren’t continuing to wow gamers now (while, for instance, Magic has survived 26 years with no end in sight), but maybe more of an folk history about how the gaming community viewed and theorized about their demise - and whether any of those theories hold any water.
And, since very little has been written about either game, hopefully that might just be good enough.
So in this first installment, I want to give you some background into the two games we’ll be talking about. In forthcoming posts I’ll go more in depth into the games themselves, their lives… and what forces may have killed them.

The Games


Boxes of the base set of Hecatomb and its
two expansions.

Hecatomb (the name, from the Greek, means a public sacrifice to a particular god, usually of 100 animals), was a collectible card game (now called a trading card game) which premiered at GenCon in August of 2005. If I needed a snappy description for it, Hecatomb could perhaps be summed up with this phase: It was Magic: The Gathering’s “goth cousin.”
Hecatomb had a particularly grim concept behind it: Unlike in Magic, where the players portray “Planeswalkers” who summon creatures and cast spells in a magician's duel, in Hecatomb each player portrays an “Endbringer,” whose goal is, simply, to end the world. Unlike the asymmetrical gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons, where the players are the heroes and the dungeon master portrays the evil mastermind, in Hecatomb, there are no heroes. Each player is essentially vying for the right to end the world their own way, trying to secure 20 souls, which symbolize a certain number of followers.
Thematically, the game drew on a number of sources, from the Mythos tales of H. P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Hastur, Nyarlathotep, Gugs and other beasts of the Lovecraftian menagerie have a major presence), to various world cultures and mythologies (Aztec, Egyptian, Greek, and so on), with a healthy dose of science fiction and gritty urban fantasy thrown in as well.
Each card - Minions, Relics, Fates and Gods - belonged to one of four particular “Dooms”, roughly coordinating with the mana colors in Magic: Deceit was blue, Greed was green, Destruction was red, and Corruption was gray.
Hecatomb’s gameplay and mechanics owed a great deal to Magic. Players summoned “minions,” the casting costs of which they paid for by “tapping” mana, just like in Magic. Unlike Magic, where there are dedicated land cards to use as mana sources, in Hecatomb any card could be played in your mana zone as a mana card. In combat, minions that have been combined into “abominations” of two minions or more are “tapped” and can either be blocked by other abominations or, if not, they can reap souls from the enemy endbringer.
What made the game innovative is that, unlike other TCGs at the time, Hecatomb was played with plastic, pentagonal cards of which four of the five sides are transparent. When “stitching” minions together to create abominations, the cards are stacked on top of one another in such a way that the top text of each card appears through a transparent side, creating a creature (no more than 5 cards high) with specific abilities and statistics. Many of the cards had abilities that triggered when they were played on a card of another color. Thus, the timing of the cards and the order in which they were played was paramount.
Originally, the game was played with a 40-card deck, but that was later altered to make 60-card decks the norm. The rules booklet advised that players make decks using cards from two of the dooms instead of more or fewer to give the best play options.

Two of the rare "God" cards from the final Hecatomb expansion

During its brief 8-month life, Hecatomb produced three sets - the base set and a second set, Last All Hallow’s Eve, and a second expansion, Blanket of Lies. The base set was available in 40-card “starter decks” as well as 13-card booster packs. Last All Hallow’s Eve was available only in boosters; it and the bast set each contained 144 cards. Blanket of Lies, however, took on the theme of a world ending via alien invasion, and so included a lot of the mythology related to Roswell, government conspiracies, cover-ups, and so on. That expansion had only 72 cards, and was also only available in booster packs; each Blanket of Lies booster included a cardboard insert which explained two new additions to the game’s mechanics introduced in the set, as well as the Endbringer’s League, an organized competitive play component of the game, supported by Wizards.
The announcement to cancel the game was made on the Hecatomb website in May of 2006 - less than three short months before Dreamblade would make its own premier at that year’s GenCon.


A selection of miniatures from the Dreamblade
expansion Chrysotic Plague

Dreamblade was not the first foray by Wizards of the Coast into the Collectible Miniatures Game (CMG) market (about which I’ll have more to say in later posts), nor would it be the last. But it was probably their most ambitious.
Like Hecatomb, Dreamblade drew heavily on elements that had already proved successful in Magic, as well as in WotC’s previous CMGs, and you could also draw a fairly strong comparative line to Hecatomb in other ways.
The concept behind Dreamblade involved the players taking on the personas of “Dream Lords”, specially-trained psychics who are battling for supremacy over the Dreamscape, a realm where humanity’s consciousness journeys while they sleep, but actually goes deeper and darker than anyone ever suspected. The Dream Lords used their abilities to spawn, and battle each other with, creatures culled from nightmares and archetypes of the collective unconscious. This is a fairly sophisticated concept, drawn in part from Jungian psychology, which was likely lost on the vast majority of players.
Unlike Hecatomb and Magic, Dreamblade was a game played two-dimensionally, with the pieces moving around a board, instead of cards being played in a static space. Instead of a standard miniatures game of the day, which used a paper battle mat divided into 1-inch squares for movement and copied many elements of popular tabletop wargames like Warhammer 40,000, the Dreamscape (which, yes, was a large, colorful paper mat) was separated into a grid of 25 large squares. Certain squares were worth points to each player if they controlled them at the end of a round; players also received points for destroying opposing miniatures. Whoever scored the most points in a particular round claimed that round, and the first player to win six rounds won the game.
Unlike Magic and Hecatomb, there was no “mana” used by players to “spawn” their creatures into the Dreamscape. At the start of a round the players rolled simple D6s and the combination of those numbers (excluding 1s rolled) was was the amount of “spawn points” available to each player.
However, that wasn’t all. In addition to a spawn cost, each piece had an “Aspect Cost.” Like Hecatomb, which featured four factions called “Dooms,” Dreamblade had four factions called “Aspects,” which represented fundamental forces in the dreamscape, each with a corresponding color which appeared on the creature’s base. They were Valor (Blue, with an icon of Crossed Swords), Passion (Red, with a fireball), Fear (Green, with a skull) and Madness (Gray, with a tentacle). Each piece had a certain number of aspect icons, representing an additional cost. Any miniatures a player had play of that aspect could satisfy that cost.
Gameplay was pretty dynamic. Combat was prosecuted via the rolling of proprietary dice, which had three sides denoting 1, 2 or 3 points of damage, two sides which were blank, and one side with a “blade” icon on it. The blade icons would activate abilities possessed by a certain creature. Each creature had two damage numbers - one which would be enough to “displace” the creature, meaning to send it to another place in the dreamscape, or to outright destroy it. Destroying the creature of course got it off the board, but it also gave the players who owned it additional spawn points next turn. So there were strategic choices to be made.
As a game focused on area control, creatures with special rules and abilities that provided additional movement were prized (a player had only two “action” phases per turn, and could only either move all of their pieces or attack with them, no mixing and matching allowed). The rarest and most sought-after piece in the game, Scarab Warcharm, had abilities that could allow movement for a number of allied pieces, provided you rolled enough blades.
The miniatures drew from a wide range of imagery and were, in my opinion, some of the most diverse and interesting tabletop miniatures every produced. The miniature designs reached across world cultures, genres (sci-fi, horror, fantasy), and also into the realm of the outright bizarre and surreal. Drawing on WotC’s usage of transparent colored plastics as "special effects" in their previous minis lines, Dreamblade ended up with a number of evocative, unique miniatures.
Dreamblade, in addition to the base set, produced four expansions - Baxar’s War, Chrysotic Plague, Anvilborn, and Night Fusion. There was a starter set which was the only way to get the necessary dice and playmats and included 16 minis; booster packs were sold in packs of seven minis, and each also included a sheet of paper which was a combination set checklist and introduction to any new rules elements in a respective set.
Dreamblade lasted 14 months, with the announcement that it would be cancelled coming on Oct. 9, 2007.
But why did these two games, with so much going for them, end up being consigned to the dustbin of the game room?
We’ll get into that next time.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Geek Subscription Box Boom

Today in The Cube: 

This past weekend, I was rummaging around in one of our kitchen cupboards, when I rediscovered this mug, which I’d completely forgotten I had:

This mug, and a whole bunch of other merch, came from one of the several geek subscription boxes I tried out a few years ago, and it got me recalling what it was like when I’d get a monthly box of wacky surprise stuff in the mail.

The early 2010s were the wild west of what I’ve called the “Geek Box Boom” - when subscription boxes aimed at nerds, gamers, comic book geeks, tabletop gaming enthusiasts, splatterpunks and others, were new and novel, and there seemed to be an infinite variety of them.

Now, subscription boxes are everywhere - it’s hard, for instance, to listen to a podcast without being assaulted by at least one subscription box advertisement, whether it be for shaving razors (Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club), meal preparation kits (Blue Apron, Hello Fresh), clothing (Stitch Fix, Bomb Fell), true crime hobbyists (Hunt a Killer) and more (Ipsy for makeup, Art Box for art supplies, NatureBox for healthy snacks… the list goes on, truly) - but it feels to me like geek boxes really cleared the path for the rest of these boxes to enter into the marketplace.

Why the heck do we even like subscription boxes, in the first place? Part of it is the convenience. You subscribe, so your credit card is charged every month without having to think about it, and the stuff just arrives at your house. Cynics would no doubt argue that it shows something about Millennials that they’d rather get stuff in the mail than interact with real people but, c’mon, you can’t blame Millennials for destroying everything all the time.

But also, it’s FUN. Especially when it came to the geek boxes, you never knew what you were going to get. Sure, some of them had a monthly theme, but once the postman dropped off the box at your house, there you had, in your hands, a perfect personal parcel of potent possibility. It was like your own blind box stuffed with treasure.

I first started in on the geek subscription box trend with Horror Block. While Loot Crate started up in 2012 and is definitely the most well-known of the geek boxes (heck, most of the other boxes out there called themselves some version of “________ Crate” afterwards), the Nerd Block company, out of Canada, started a year later. 

One of my Horror Block hauls

Nerd Block was different than Loot Crate because, at the time, they offered an assortment of themed subscription boxes, while Loot Crate really only offered their standard crate (whose themes changed every month). Nerd Block had their standard grab-bag Nerd Block box, then there was Nerd Block Jr. (for kids), then there was Horror Block (for horror fans), and Gamer Block (for video gamers). Other blocks later followed, including one for comics.

I was lured in by Horror Block, and it didn’t disappoint. In each box, you’d get an issue of Rue Morgue magazine, a horror-themed t-shirt in your size, and a series of other items - could be a book, a DVD/Blu-Ray, a scary plush (I still have the Chucky plush, which frightens my kids), a film cell, trading cards, and other stuff. Make no mistake, the boxes were PACKED. In one memorable October box, one of the items was a full-sized Freddy Krueger latex mask. In another box, I got the Blu-Ray of “The Puppet Master.”

I tried out Gamer Block as well (not as cool, but I did get a plush of Link from Legend of Zelda, and my Starfox Coffee mug), and also their comic box, which was OK but not what I really was looking for.

I did give into the hype and try out Loot Crate, and ended up being disappointed. While there were some cool things (like the Xenomorph ReAction figure from ‘Alien’) I just felt that the items weren’t as high-quality as the Nerd Blocks, and a higher percentage of them just felt like they were throw-ins from a dollar store. Though, to be fair, Loot Crate also did sometimes put in Funko Pops, and some apparel that was fun (I got a pair of “Dancing Baby Groot” socks that I loved, and I wore those things till they fell apart - I’m pretty rough on my socks).

For a while, it did seem like there was an arms race between Nerd Block and Loot Crate to see who could get the better items.

Something that was fun about all of these services were the boxes themselves - the Nerd Block family had really nifty box art; heck, the Gamer Block box looked just like an original NES game system. The Loot Crate Boxes, while their exteriors were always the same, had illustrated interiors that were designed to be used for displaying the items that you got. 

Part of the marketing scheme for these companies was to enlist you in helping to sell the product - the Nerd Block boxes explicitly encouraged you to Instagram your loot, and a lot of us did. Unboxing videos for these services, posted by customers, also cropped up all over YouTube.

As a big tabletop gaming nerd, I also tried out some Magic: The Gathering subscription boxes, and they were uniformly pretty good. You’d get a few packs of cards, some dice, and/or maybe other items, depending on the box you picked. Perhaps presaging the “geek box bubble” that would come in a few years, the very first Magic box I tried, which was excellent, closed its doors after two months. However another, called Fantasy Crate, is still apparently going strong. 

One of my Fantasy Crate Hauls

One box I tried was called the “Dead Crate,” and it featured out-of-print (or “Dead”) card games. Now, of course, this could be seen as a great way to get rubes to pay to take outdated inventory off of your hands (I mean, obviously, that’s what it was) but it was still fun. I also tried out what was then the premier comic book box, Comic Bento, and got some neat graphic novels from it, but it wasn’t enough to hold my interest. 

A Dead Crate haul

After a while, though, I drifted away from the boxes. Some of them started to get repetitive, with the same sorts of items appearing over and over. Further, I just didn’t have enough space to keep storing all of this stuff. And, of course, they weren’t cheap. Each Horror Block, including shipping, was almost $40, and that’s a lot of scratch to devote each month to random horror crap, no matter how fun it is. Loot Crate, at about $25 including shipping, was more reasonable, but just not worth it to me to keep up a subscription. A bunch of the items I ended up selling to the local “geek thrift shop” that bought old video games and such.

And it looks like I got out at the right time. In the summer of 2017, the big news came: Nerd Block had filed to bankruptcy. In the court filings, published by Bleeding Cool, it showed that the company owed huge sums of money to a variety of companies (Including Diamond Comics Distributors, Funko, and others) and even owed money to its own executives. Comics Bento also shuttered around the same time; a budget box called 1Up Box also called it quits.

In early 2018, Nerd Block posted on its website that it was coming back, and had some partnerships in progress. But it’s been almost a year, and there’s nothing new on their website; their formerly active Twitter account has been dormant since then.

But Loot Crate still seems to be going strong. Instead of one or two different boxes, the company now offers no fewer than 21 different boxes to choose from, ranging from the original box, to boxes themed by franchise (Firefly, wrestling, Marvel, Harry Potter) and by genre (gaming, anime, horror, clothing, etc.). The prices range from a reasonable $11.99+S&H for the LootWear crate, to a whopping $59.99+S&H a month for the Star Wars crate. That's a lot of Force to be with you.

And there are still a ton of other geek crates out there. Wargaming company Privateer Press has their own subscription box, there’s a box for tabletop games, for miniatures hobbyists, and still more and more geek boxes than you can easily shake a stick at.

And me? I’m fine just sipping coffee from my Starfox Coffee mug.

Although, to be honest, that LootWear crate is pretty tempting…

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

I'll Miss Nerd Lunch: An Appreciation

Today in The Cube:

It doesn’t escape my notice that my last post before going on my extended Thanksgiving-Holiday Season break was a eulogy of a well-known fixture of pop culture. And now I return to raise a glass to another of my favorites that is walking off into the sunset sometime soon.
It was announced on Tuesday’s episode of the podcast, Nerd Lunch “Prime”, that the long-running podcast will be ending at a point in the future. The exact date isn’t known, and the discussion on the episode left open the possibility that they may continue podcasting even for another year. Still, the announcement somewhat shocked, and definitely made an impact on, me.
I wasn’t completely blindsided by it, to be honest. Last month saw the final episode of Nerd Lunch’s “Rabbit Hole” podcast, where members literally and deliberately fall down Wikipedia holes, starting from one entry and trying to reach another by judicious clicking of links. The end of this show, one of my favorites (and what initially attracted me to Nerd Lunch in the first place), made me wonder if any other big changes were in store.
And, apparently, they were.
Now, I don’t know any of the Nerd Lunch folks personally, and I won’t speculate on why the show is ending, simply because I haven’t a clue. I do know that podcasting and even blogging isn’t easy (I've done both), and can be very time consuming, especially in an increasingly crowded and, often, angry marketplace. The effort that you put in is almost universally unequal to the feedback and community engagement you get back. Bloggers I've had discussions with on Twitter are often at loggerheads about what to do about it. I don’t blame anybody who wants to take a break and/or try something new. 
While I was a relatively recent convert to Nerd Lunch (I’ve been listening for about the last year or so), I nevertheless felt that I knew the guys on the episodes. They were knowledgeable, they presented interesting topics, and they were funny and engaging. Furthermore, they were civil, convivial, and produced fun shows. 
Here’s hoping that whatever the next chapter will be for CT and all the rest of the Nerd Lunch crew, it will be fun, fulfilling, and just as nerdy.
Please put your trash in the receptacle.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Remembering Stan Lee

Like most of us, I grew up hearing the voice of Stan Lee, usually associated with Marvel’s spate of Saturday morning cartoons in the 1990s (including the much beloved, and somewhat obscure “Pryde of the X-Men” standalone episode). And now, sadly, that voice is silenced.
Stan Lee died Monday at 95. I’m certainly not the only geek/nerd/aficionado to eulogize him this week, nor likely the most eloquent. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him, after all.
The battle for Lee’s cultural legacy began almost the instant the news of his passing hit the internet. Was he a bombastic, effusive creative genius, or did he play the comics industry’s self-aggrandizing Edison to Kirby and Ditko’s Tesla? That’s a debate for better (or worse) minds than mine. I only admired him from afar.
You absolutely couldn’t mistake Lee’s presence. He had a trademark look - mustache, big glasses, salt and pepper hair, and a constant, toothy grin - than transcended the eras and the changes in fashion. No matter the photo you see of him, no matter the decade, you know immediately that it’s Stan Lee.
What makes him important for me, I think, is this major point: Stan Lee made it OK to be a geek. In a culture now where “geek” is a term whose possession is fought over by all kinds of groups, and where so-called “geek culture” is ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when liking comic books, when talking about superheroes, was something for nerds and outcasts. It got you laughed at, not applauded. I remember those days vividly.
But Stan Lee was an adult who was out there, talking about comic books. He MADE comic books, created the heroes that we loved. Smiling, excited, bright-eyed behind the glasses, Lee personified the kind of ebullience we all felt inside about our nascent, hidden nerdy passions, but he had the courage to let it out. And so could we. Stan Lee made it OK to be a geek.
Without him, literally, the “geek industrial complex” that exists now would never have come into being. Unlike Scott McCloud, comics’ modern apologist, who has tried to argue why the medium should be looked at from an artistic perspective, Lee knew that comics and superheroes were fun. They were entertaining. And they were nothing to be ashamed of.
Stan Lee made it OK to be a geek.
So unfurl that geek flag, today, folks. Do something nerdy for ol’ Stan. It’s what he would have wanted.